An authoritarian nationalist regime in Hungary is threatening a renowned international university in Budapest. Legislation introduced last week by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban would fundamentally alter the legal status of Central European University and could force it to shut down or leave the country.
What’s going on in Hungary is not a local political dispute, but a frontal assault on liberal values essential to democracy and academic freedom.
The Hungarian government’s attack on CEU endangers universities throughout Europe and is sending shock waves across the Atlantic to the school’s many US academic partners. If the government of an EU member state can undermine a world-class private international university through destructive regulation, no European or American academic institution can be fully protected from the wave of nationalist authoritarian politics that is sweeping Europe and the United States.
As CEU’s president for seven years until last summer, I marvel at what the university has become. In just 25 years since its founding, the university has grown into a bastion of free inquiry and an engine of opportunity for its 14,000 alumni in countries around the world, most of whom are the first members of their families and communities to achieve graduate-level education.
The university was created in 1991 to rekindle academic freedom in Central and Eastern Europe after decades of totalitarian suppression. It has focused on the social sciences and humanities, whose deep intellectual traditions and creative contributions in the region were badly twisted by fascism and communism.
CEU today is uniquely international. Its 1,600 masters and doctoral students come from 107 countries, with no dominant nationality. Its international faculty is drawn from 30 countries and the most prominent universities in Europe and the United States. Its students are competitively selected from across the globe, and it gives scholarships to 90 percent of its students.
In a very short period, the university has reached a level of excellence that places it near the top of international graduate education. The Times Higher Education review ranks the university’s international and political studies programs among the best 50 in the world. It has been awarded the highest number and largest amount of external competitive research grants of any university in Eastern Europe, and among the top five in all of Europe.
Ironically, by attacking CEU, the Hungarian government is undermining a major contributor to academic and economic life in Hungary. There is no arguing with the numbers. The university receives no funding from the Hungarian government, but contributes millions annually in employment, services, and taxes to the Hungarian economy. The university’s largest national group of students is from Hungary, and they receive more than 200 scholarships each year. Forty percent of the faculty and much of the staff is Hungarian, and leading Hungarian academics are attracted from abroad to return to their country to teach at CEU. The international university has close ties with other Hungarian universities and the cultural community of Budapest. Last year it completed construction of a $37 million campus in downtown Budapest, further cementing its commitment to Hungary.
Why, then, has Viktor Orban decided to attack the university? The short answer is politics. Elections will be held in Hungary in 2018, and Orban’s self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy” needs a “liberal” bogeyman to be this year’s political target of its authoritarian nationalism. CEU was founded with a generous grant from George Soros. The Hungarian government, having previously focused its political attacks and crippling regulatory restrictions on fleeing refugees, independent courts, and free media, is now aiming at Soros and the civil society organizations he has supported to advance democratic open societies.
On Friday, the Hungarian prime minister took a page out of Donald Trump’s protectionist playbook, accusing CEU of “cheating” by unfairly competing with Hungarian universities and issuing “fake” degrees without the authority of an international agreement between Hungary and the United States. Orban’s accusation is false. The university is operating under a formal agreement signed in 2004 between then Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy and Governor George Pataki of New York state, where the university is chartered in the United States.
In response to the Hungarian government’s attack on CEU, the US State Department on Friday issued a statement opposing “new, targeted, and onerous regulatory requirements” that would “negatively affect or even lead to the closure” of the university, which has “strengthened Hungary’s influence and leadership in the region through its academic excellence and many contributions to independent, critical thinking.”
The debate over the future of CEU is about the defense of democracy, open inquiry, and the pursuit of knowledge. These are at the heart of what a university can contribute to society, and why the academic freedom of CEU matters and must be defended.
John Shattuck, professor of practice in diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, served as president of Central European University from 2009 to 2016.